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On-Site Visit: Does The Clyfford Still Museum Deserve Its Raves?

Although I’ve twice interviewed Dean Sobel, the director of the 14-month-old Clyfford Stil Museum, I saw him in Maryland, at the storage facility where Still’s paintings were kept before the museum opened. My article about his goals for the museum ran in the Wall Street Journal in October, 2011, before the museum opened.

CStill1It wasn’t until last Friday, when I was in Denver, that was able to see the museum and the works (some of which I saw in storage) fully stretched and hung properly in a building designed by Brad Cloepfil of Allied Works Architecture. The building deserves the raves it received, some of which I’ve quoted below (in agreement).

One attribute I particularly fancied: the sight lines between galleries. Take a look at a couple of my pictures. Above left, you can see Still’s self-portrait between two of his loveliest paintings.

Below  right, there’s an example of compare-and-contrast views. Finally, below left, you’ll see how visitors may view a painting from the drawings gallery. (Still’s drawings, btw, turned out to be far more interesting than I expected them to be.)

I also loved parts of the first floor of the museum, where Still’s large canvases are stored (some in open view), where his paintings are conserved, and where his many drawings not on display are stored, accessible to scholars, along with his archives. Vitrines on this floor display some items drawn from those archives — as I described in my WSJ piece. (Here’s a tidbit: Still wrote to Clement Greenberg as “Dear Greenberg.” Was there an edge in that? Sobel didn’t know, nor do I, but maybe a reader will.) His letter to Betty Parsons, in which he quits the art world, is there too.

There’s also an excellent interactive feature with, among its offering, a sampling of what was going in art history and in the world as Still painted.

CSdrawingsNow for those promised excerpts.

Here’s Karen Wilkin in the WSJ: “The handsome, earthy building is superb, with glorious, changing, aqueous light diffused through a continuous concrete “web” in most of the second floor exhibition spaces….The galleries, varied in ways sympathetic to the collection and flexible enough for rotating selections, are all wonderfully proportioned; even the most splendid of them—a light-washed, symmetrical central space—remains intimate while accommodating five monumental canvases. Views through doorways, echoing traditional enfilade arrangements, permit comparisons. It’s all logical, articulate, and makes Still look his absolute best.”

Here’s Christopher Knight in the Los Angeles Times: “…the new Clyfford Still Museum…is nothing less than a marvelous model for what a single-artist museum can be. Virtually every aspect of it is designed to maximize a visitor’s encounter with Still’s often riveting art….The cantilevered second floor rests lightly on a non-structural glass wall. Exterior poured-concrete striations — echoed in wood-slat panels — create ethereal shadow-play in the clear daylight of the Mile High City. A visually unobtrusive perforated-concrete screen, which filters overhead natural gallery illumination from skylights, is surprisingly buoyant….paintings lead you through nine lovely galleries… Separations between rooms allow views across and down into other spaces, facilitating awareness of where you are in the building. The art experience is the program, first and last.

CSviewAnd here’s James Russell on Bloomberg: “…The boxy bunker designed by architect Brad Cloepfil bristles with ragged concrete fins, evoking Still’s intricate compositions. That roughened exterior radiates an elegant gravitas….Cloepfil, of the Portland, Oregon, firm Allied Works Architecture Inc., brings a Zen calm by framing the nine, squarish second-floor galleries in planes of concrete and painted drywall that alternately obscure and reveal, like Shoji screens. He mixes salon-style rooms with high galleries topped by a rippling scrim of concrete in which teardrop perforations delicately shower the space with shimmering daylight.”

Single-artist museums aren’t easy beasts to design, program and manage. This one has a great building and an excellent start.

Photo credits: © Judith H. Dobrzynski



  1. Had the good fortune to work with Brad Cloepfil on his first museum project – the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis—a Kunsthalle with heart. On an extremely limited budget, his manipulation of space, concrete and chain metal produced alchemy, making it a true jewel-box. Additionally, he had no small task of creating a building that would have to dialogue with what existed next door—Ando’s Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts. One day, I would like to see his addition to University of Michigan Museum of Art and Clyfford Still Museum. That’s why I was disappointed with his work in NYC—Museum of Art and Design and in Seattle—SAM. FYI – If you ever head to Seattle, make it a point to travel to the Wright Exhibition Space. A challenge to find, but like St. Louis, a jewel for viewing art. Most recently caught a small (12 pieces) exhibition from the private collection of the Wright family (a single point-of-view from the collector’s vantage). In this case both the structure and the exhibit do prove ‘less is more.’

  2. Marian Godfrey says:

    My father, Thomas Godfrey, was chairman of the graduate department of fine arts at the University of Pennsylvania and also interim dean when the Still show opened the Institute of Contemporary Art there. Dad, who was closely involved with the exhibition, has a letter from Still, very friendly (who sent it with a signed small black and white print), addressed Dear Godfrey; so I am guessing that was just his general epistolary style.

  3. Norman Sasowsky says:

    I know scale is important in seeing, judging Still’s work, and I admire his attitude towards the Art Wolrd, but I find his paintings – the shapes within them, the color relationships – uninspired. They seem to lack any organic quality, derived from a deep source. I’m sorry to say this and wonder if I am alone? I have seen some of his paintings in mueums. N. Sasowsky

    • Hardly. Uninspired to say the least.
      Insensitive to form, color, light, scale, edge, space, meaning.

      • I would suggest that doubters see the works on display at the Still Museum. I, too, was skeptical of the paintings in San Francisco and of some of those at the Met. I think the ones I’ve seen in Denver and in Maryland, when they were in storage, changed my mind.

  4. Mark E. Jacobs says:

    I have always loved Still. I could not wait to join the museum, could not wait to visit, and I love stopping in on my several visits a year through Denver (I live in Dallas). I think the building is amazing- just the right texture, the right size, etc. Seeing the work over and over again is just fine, and there is always new work being displayed. I tell all my friends to visit, many of whom have never heard of Still, and they are all amazed. A must see on many levels.

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